No Room at the Inn
By Marvin Payne

I’m a lousy salesman (“short and stout – this is my handle, this is …” No, there’s no song, but still it’s a refrain I can’t seem to escape. I’ve begged Michael McLean to tell me his secret, but he just looks blankly at me as though he’s forgotten it, along with his carols ((now here’s a guy whose salesmanship is truly awe-inspiring.  Every year he draws standing-room-only crowds into these theatres all over the place to watch choirs do what? I mean, what can they do? Tell jokes? Apologize? I thought, “Hey, if Michael can do this, why can’t I?” and I rented out the Springville Art Museum for a month and was nearly ready to run my ads in Meridian when the Museum canceled the whole thing in what can only be described as a “huff.” They found out I was calling the show “Invisible Paintings.” Michael could have sold them on it.)) ). (Note to the editors: This is the correct punctuation. Trust me.)

I’m just a few nights from opening as the dark, mysterious, enigmatic, chimerical, tortured, labyrinthian, (did I say “dark” already?) love interest in “Jane Eyre.” I want very badly to succeed. (See “Now Playing” at www.marvinpayne.com for a commercial message at this point. Please.)

[Special Note to Meridian Readers who have Come Here to Complete a Voluntary Extra-credit Homework Assignment as Part of their ESL Curriculum:
Word order in English is much more important than in some other languages it is. For example, it would be syntactically (and semantically) inappropriate to read the preceding (skip parentheses) sentence “I want to succeed very badly.” This is a grammatical construction the use of which is restricted to Theatre Critics, who write things like “succeeded very badly.” (In excerpting from critical reviews for promotional purposes, however, it is permitted to take certain liberties with word order – see www.marvinpayne.com/reviewdisclaimer.html . Really.)]

[Special Note to Teachers of English as a Second Language Generally: It may be prudent to discourage extra-credit work in this column until next semester, when your students have moved on from ESL to BGTL (“Backstage Graffiti as a Third Language”). Just a friendly academic-to-academic heads-up.]

Succeeding in roles that are dark, mysterious, enigmatic, chimerical, tortured, labyrinthian, and dark requires an actor to be vulnerable. So, in brave pursuit of vulnerability, I tell you (again) “I’m a lousy salesman.” But audiences love to see characters battle against their vulnerabilities, so here goes. I’m going to say something here so bold and truly salesman-like that even the Meridian Editors (who could sell saxophones to Harold Hill, bless their hearts) dare not say: You need Meridian Magazine. I didn’t say “want,” I didn’t say “could really use,” I didn’t say “might benefit enormously from,” I didn’t say “could supplement your study of official church stuff with.” I said “need.”

And this is why: Here you receive permissions you will not receive through church correlated channels! I have one particular permission in mind (it might be the only one): I, a Meridian Columnist of some Considerable Standing, grant you what your Gospel Doctrine Teacher, Ward Choir Leader, and Visiting High Council Speaker will (appropriately) withhold: Permission, for yet another year, to keep celebrating, despite the constraints of curriculum, correlation, commerce, or community coercion, Christmas. For as long as you want. There.

At my house, we are. In this column, we will.

So:

On Christmas Eve, we gathered at the church for something that’s been done in Alpine for well over a hundred years: little children acting out the Nativity, and the Bishop handing out bags of peanuts and candy. Every Christmas Eve. This year the Pattersons saved me a seat on the front row (my wife was helping to herd shepherds ((making her, I suppose, a “shepherdherdess“)) ) and watched Joseph and Mary, each very round-cheeked, round-eyed, and solemnly three years old, sitting in a splintery old stable framed under the red and yellow floodlights by my excellent neighbor Tom Bench. And I suddenly wondered, for the first time in a half-century of Christmases, if Joseph and Mary were the only ones in Bethlehem that night who got there after the “no vacancy” signs went up.

An Idea For a Story
(Christmas Eve, 2004, between 6:20 and 7:00 PM)

A little boy, Joshua, travels with his grandmother the long road from Jericho to the tiny town where her ancestors were born. They’d rather not have made this journey, but a mysterious emperor in some fabled city impossibly distant has commanded them to gather, because he wants to count them and tax them – and since his imperial armies run the country now, they have obeyed.

The journey has been long and boring. They’ve even been denied the excitement of avoiding robbers, or even the excitement of some interesting weather. The robbers aren’t waylaying lonely travelers, because the whole country is on the move and there aren’t any lonely travelers. And it’s mid-spring and boringly mild.

They arrive after dark in the tiny town, now bursting at the seams with the remote relations of the few folks who still live there. And there is, as ought to have been expected, no room at the inn. The innkeeper, however, has cleaned his large stables, hung blankets between its various stalls and lofts and recesses, letting the animals wander in the mild night, so there are makeshift rooms to rent to weary travelers.

As Joshua lies down next to his grandmother on some straw they’ve spread out evenly on the rutted dirt floor, he hears a young couple quarreling in the loft overhead. Off in the other end of the stable somewhere a toddler whines, and against the boards separating Joshua from the next stall an old man is muttering in his sleep. Still, the boy is so tired that he only narrowly hears the new urgent whispering as another young family has just arrived. The husband is sweeping straw together into a pile. He eases his wife stiffly down against it. She hurts. Something is wrong. Joshua is tired.

Among the few cows shifting and clumping outside in the starlight, just one, from her incessant moaning, seems offended at having to have surrendered her home to a dirty-faced runt of another species.

The dirty-faced runt finally descends into sleep through the unrelenting din.

Some hours later he awakens with a start. Is it the silence that has surprised him into wakefulness? But it’s not entirely silent. Is it the strange light? Joshua leans up on an elbow and peers between the boards, over the wheezing form of his slumbering old neighbor. Just beyond lies a young woman, a girl really, her hair hanging damp and her face pale – but oh, so lovely as she gazes on a gurgling infant, minutes old. Her husband is farther off, kicking straw out into the night and gathering more from a manger.

Joshua drifts again into sleep, imagining the most amazing music on the wind.

(Merry Christmas. All year. To people I like more than you know.)

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“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)